Updated: Oct 20, 2019
In US research we use probate records extensively. They can help identify the married names of daughters, family land holdings and separate families of the same name. Like most Irish records, probate records in Ireland are a sad story…most of the original wills were lost in the 1922 fire at the Public Record Office.
Probate records in Ireland are classified as pre-1858 and post 1858. Prior to 1858 wills and administrations were filed in the ecclesiastical or church courts (presided over by the Church of Ireland). There were twenty-eight Diocesan courts, known as the consistorial courts which handled probate matters for those who lived within their boundaries, or whose estate had a value of £5 (according to the Historical UK Inflation rates and calculator website, £5 in 1850 would be equal to £329.50 in 2018 or about $412). If an estate was valued at over £5 or included property in more than one diocese, then it was probated in the Prerogative Court of Armagh or Dublin (subordinate courts to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury). If an individual owned property in England as well as in Ireland, their estate was most likely probated in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
Prior to the 1922 fire, most wills and administration bonds (referred to as admons) were indexed and many of the indexes have survived. That’s the good news…the bad news is that there is no single index to check and what you will get in many cases is just a name, location and date. The indexes are not fully alphabetical, so if you’re using microfilm or the original books when you get to the letter of your surname, go through the entire section. Some are grouped by name, but other are in chronological order. Most of these indexes are now online at various sites.
The National Archives of Ireland - Prerogative and diocesan copies of some wills and indexes to others, 1596 – 1858
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland - Index to pre-1858 Diocesan wills and administration bonds and Index to surviving pre-1858 wills in PRONI (part of the PRONI Name Search database). One of the things that makes PRONI unique is that they went to private sources such as solicitors to obtain copies of some of the destroyed wills and other documents lost in the fire.
FindMyPast Index Of Irish Wills 1484-1858 (This covers records at the National Archives of Ireland)
Index to Irish Wills - 5 volumes (Ancestry)
For most of us, the chances of finding something is slim. In this timeframe there will be few Roman Catholics...the results will be primarily for Protestants. Here is an example from the National Archives database of the Index to Prerogative and diocesan wills. There is an Ann Moge, alias Yeates in 1806. It doesn't even have a locality, although it is from the Diocese of Down where the Moag family lived. Make sure you search on all of the spelling variations of the name. If you have a common name, it can be even more difficult, although locality information may help. Standardization of locality names was not done until the 1830s so be flexible with locality names as well. This is also indexed at PRONI with the notation that the original documents "DO NOT exist."
If you are using the PRONI index (Name Search) the sample at the top of the page is an example of what you'll likely see with the notation that the original documents TO NOT exist. However, as is always the possibility with Irish records, you may get lucky! Here's an example of an instance where there are some original documents. Note it says the original documents DO exist. They are from 1721 and the PRONI Reference is T/741/9.
Having found this, the next step is to check the PRONI Ref[erence]. Using the e-Catalog, type in the reference number. I will admit that the e-Catalog is not the most user friendly catalog I've used. Sometimes you have to play with the number to find the reference. I found it under T741/9 using the name Hamilton in the "Any Text" box.
After the partition of Ireland in 1922, PRONI made an effort to collect private records that might replace some of the material that was lost in the fire in Dublin. There is a chance that in estate papers or solicitor's papers they may have a copy of the original probate papers. If you have ancestors from the six counties of what is now Northern Ireland you'll want to check.
For the Prerogative Wills, in addition to the Indexes, there are also extracts that were made before the fire. Sir William Bethan made handwritten abstracts of the family information in the wills to 1810. His original notebooks have been microfilmed and are available in the National Archives and are also available at FindMyPast. These are his handwritten notes so bring a lot of patience when you’re viewing them. For anyone searching for 17th and 18th century records for gentry or upper class families, these are a goldmine. Here’s an example:
Transcription from microfilm at The National Archives of Ireland
Gershon Boate of Marystown in co Roscommon
2 Sep 1743—22 Jan 1744 [written —probated]
son Benjamin B eldest son Gershon B 2 son Samuel eldest dr Rachel B. alias Ross 2d dau Lydia 3 — Susanna gr son Thomas Robinson
[It would appear that not everything is transcribed as the image above is not online, but is a record I copied from microfilm at The National Archives.]
Another series of abstracts were created prior to the fire by Gertrude Thrift which are also online at FindMyPast
If you plan to search these records these early probate records, either online or at the National Archives, make sure you learn as much as possible about the records. Here are some reference books to check.
Grenham, John, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, Dublin, 2018, 5th Edition.
Hutchison, Brian W., Researching Irish Testamentary Records..., Toronto, Heritage Publications, 2002.
In addition (as always) please read the explanatory information on each database before you search.
Next week I’ll discuss the post-1858 probate records.
Hope you're all enjoying your summer and getting some R&R. It's so hot here in Florida that I'm enjoying my time indoors working (seriously) on my own family which I haven't done in ages! Just a reminder that there are still some spaces left for the Belfast trip in October.
Have you checked out Vivid-Pix yet? Remember you can try it on 10 pictures for free. It's a great way to improve some of your old pictures and documents as you work through your research. I've been able to extend the special 20% off pricing through the end of July. Don't miss this offer.